There's no more grating, ingratiating a sight than a group of baby boomers (and/or their offspring) spontaneously singing and dancing along to an old rock or R&B hit. That such gratuitously indulgent routines date at least as far back as 1983's "The Big Chill" doesn't stop actor-turned-writer/director Anne DeSalvo from opening her debut feature, "The Amati Girls," with a scene of sisters Grace (Mercedes Ruehl), Christine (Sean Young) and Denise (Dinah Manoff) tooling down the road, belting out a giggly version of oldies-radio staple "Doo Wah Diddy." The trip is all downhill from there, as DeSalvo takes us straight into a tired collection of clichés about the lives and loves of four Italian-American siblings and the members of their extended family.
Almost all of the characters in the film are facing a crisis of some sort. Dolly (Cloris Leachman), the lively, loving matriarch of this semi-devout Catholic clan, is obsessed with making preparations for her own death, including picking out a coffin and a prom-worthy blue chiffon dress. Daughter Grace is the token doormat, a would-be supermom who consistently sacrifices her own needs to those of her good-hearted but chauvinistic husband, Joe (Paul Sorvino). Sibling Christine is separated from Paul (Jamey Sheridan), a good-hearted workaholic. Denise, an aspiring singer, is terrified to make a commitment to a good-hearted guy named Lawrence (Mark Harmon). And their poor, mentally challenged younger sister, Dolores (Lily Knight), isn't allowed to spend time with a damaged but -- you guessed it -- good-hearted Gulf War veteran. Dolly's rather dated sentiment, "Every pot must have a top," apparently doesn't apply to all of life's situations.
Having appeared on screen in everything from Woody Allen's "Stardust Memories" to Diane Keaton's "Unstrung Heroes," DeSalvo should have picked up a tip or two about narrative development. But in "The Amati Girls," she demonstrates her willingness to tell -- not show -- a story. One unintentionally laughable scene has the secret of Christine's overprotective actions toward Dolores explained all at once, and rather clumsily at that. DeSalvo also proves perfectly willing to play the grief card, focusing her camera in turn on a funeral's sobbing mourners, a graveside ceremony AND a wake.
DeSalvo's sappy, sentimental comedy-drama really intends to be a wise-and-witty, warm-and-fuzzy, vaguely ethnic saga. Thus we get a boisterous family dinner, where pasta plates are passed around and two elderly aunts (Lee Grant and Edith Fields) revive their ages-old argument over the relative merits of Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett. It's no funnier than it sounds. And DeSalvo even takes the chance to throw in another trite saying: "When your heart is right, everything else follows." These "Girls" give chick flicks a bad name.